Finding Serenity in Stoke Newington


For as long as I can recall my uncle has lived in Stoke Newington. Known affectionately as ‘Stokey’ by locals, this appealing enclave in north London began its existence as a small country village in the Middle Ages, before being absorbed into the expanding city during the 19th Century. The newly rich made Stoke Newington their home, building large houses and one of London’s finest cemeteries, Abney Park. But in common with many districts blighted by bombing during WWII, by the 1960s Stoke Newington had fallen from grace, attracting squatters, artists, bohemians, political radicals and ….. my uncle.

Nowadays Stoke Newington finds itself back where it was in the 1800’s. New Age, arty types have long been priced out of the market, releasing a stock of fine Victorian houses to affluent bankers and the comfortably off.  Church Street is home to Whole Foods Market, Jojo Maman Bebe, Foxtons and countless chichi vintage homewares stores, indicators of the ‘right’ kind of customer.

My uncle, an art teacher before he retired and latterly a psychotherapist, remained rooted in Stoke Newington as society shifted around him: an artist for sure, with bohemian leanings. He is one of those few people who will have gardened on the same spot for almost half a lifetime, still gaining the same pleasure and satisfaction from his tiny urban plot as he did when I was 2ft high.

With every passing year my uncle tends, observes and hones his garden, making little adjustments here, adding a plant there, moving another somewhere it might grow better. He displays all the discipline I lack, not wantonly cramming the garden with any plant that captures his imagination, but refining what he has, creating the perfect balance, taking his time. The result is a tranquil garden for all seasons, a space that feels composed and relaxing. Measuring approximately 16ft by 25ft there are many angles from which the garden can be appreciated and always something different to see. The constants are a fine Trachycarpus, a purple-leaved plum, a well cared for agave and a side passageway lushly planted with ferns. The leafy infill changes a little from year to year, but not enough to spoil the equilibrium.

I am not sure if it’s the Buddhist teachings he follows, the relative austerity of his younger life, his natural patience or his years of experience which incline my uncle to garden in this thoughtful manner. Perhaps his approach could be described as ‘slow gardening’. Judging by the results I think perhaps I could do with a change of pace.